Eclipse of the Turkish Armed Forces

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Eclipse of Turkish Armed Forces

Hamid Hussain

“In Turkey, we have marriage of Islam and democracy.  The child of this marriage is secularism.  This child gets sick from time to time.  The Turkish armed forces are the doctor which saves the child.  Depending on how sick the child is, we administer the necessary medicine to make sure the child recuperates”.   General Cevik Bir; former Deputy Chief of General Staff of Turkish army

Turkish Armed Forces (known by the Turkish initials TSK – Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri) have gone through a dramatic change in the last two years.  In July 2016, a faction of TSK tried and failed to bring back TSK on the center stage of Turkey.  This failed coup attempt was the result of rapidly deteriorating relations between ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials AKP – Adalat ve Kalkinma Partisi) and TSK spanning over fifteen years.

TSK assigned itself the role of the guardian of the state and Kemalist tradition.  TSK had a key role in making decisions about national security, economy and foreign relations. Supreme Military Council (known by its Turkish initials YAS – Yuksek Askari Shura) was the instrument used for military’s dominance.  Civilian bureaucracy and judiciary dominated by secular elite were junior partners of TSK

In 1997, TSK forced removal of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan what was later called ‘post-modern coup’.  In 2000, AKP came to power and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan gradually increased his power while avoiding direct conflict with powerful army. There was now conflict between two power centers.   AKP didn’t have qualified cadres to control state bureaucracy. Erdogan made an alliance with cleric Fethullah Gulen.  Gulen’s organization Hizmet has been focused on excellence in education for three decades.  Gulenist sympathizers joined state bureaucracy especially police and judiciary.  Repeated electoral successes of AKP with control of legislature combined with penetration of state structure by Gulenist sympathizers strengthened the civilian hand.  They now felt confident to confront TSK and snatch back some powers.

Gulenist sympathizers in police and judiciary embarked on an ambitious plan of state restructuring by clipping the wings of TSK.  Several former and later serving officers were accused of plotting coups.  Hundreds of officers were charged, arrested and prosecuted in two notorious alleged conspiracies; Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer). Later, hundreds of officers including high ranking officers were convicted and sentenced to long prison sentences.  TSK was gradually losing its internal cohesion due to emergence of various factions.  Senior officers lost the confidence of junior officers for failing to protect officer corps from real and imagined conspiracies propagated by pro AKP and pro Gulenist media houses and large-scale arrests of officers.

A group of second and third tier TSK officers decided to strike before Erdogan further clipped TSK wings in upcoming August 2016 YAS meeting.  Elements from major army formations, special forces, army headquarters, air force and helicopter pilots and naval officers were involved in the coup attempt.  TSK senior brass was not in the loop.   Headquarter of coup plotters was at Akinci air force base.

On 15 July afternoon, a helicopter pilot Osman Karaca went to MIT headquarters to warn about impending coup.  MIT chief Hakan Fidan informed head of military police and later army chief General Hulusi Akar.  General Akar issued orders banning military flights over Turkish air space and prohibited movement of armored vehicles.  This upset the original coup launch time of 3 am July 16.  Coup plotters moved the time to 8:30 pm July 15.  This proved to be a fatal error as streets were bustling and Erdogan was able to rally his supporters.  Major General Mehmet Disli of strategic planning branch at General headquarters went to Akar’s office informing him that coup was in motion and asking him to take charge.  When angry Akar refused, he was arrested and flown to Akinci air base.

Coup plotters bombed Turkish parliament building and police headquarters.  Erdogan made the courageous move of flying back to Istanbul and asking his supporters to come out in streets.  Protestors confronted soldiers on the streets.  Coup attempt failed in few hours and government forces quickly restored order.  Erdogan on landing at Istanbul airport declared that ‘if we accept that everything happens for a reason, then this uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be the reason to cleanse our army’.  He truly cleansed the armed forces by sacking and arresting thousands of officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs).  Almost half of flag rank officers of Turkish army, air force and navy were sacked.

Deeply suspicious of the army, Erdogan closed all military colleges and academies and transferred several military institutions including hospitals and business interests of TSK to civilian control.  To counter military’s coercive power, he has strengthened police special forces, paramilitary forces and civilian intelligence.  In Syria, during recent operations against Syrian Kurds, army was used only initially especially tanks but later police special forces and Gendarmerie were deployed on Syrian territory. Erdogan has also expanded the role of private security contractors to fill the security gap. He hired retired Brigadier Adnan Tanriverdi as his military advisor.  Adnan was retired in 1997 on suspicion of having Islamist leanings.  In 2012, he started a private security firm SADAT.

In the aftermath of the coup, Erdogan had two choices. A transparent trial of accused officers and strict punishments or using failed coup attempt to silence all opposition.  Unfortunately, he embarked on the later course with large scale sacking and arrest of not only army personnel but civilian bureaucracy, police and judiciary.  In addition, all opposition including Gulenist sympathizers and Kurds are on the receiving end.  Hundreds of academics were sacked and many journalists have been arrested and large media houses taken over by the government.  This has divided Turkey right in the middle.  Half of Turkey hates and other half loves Erdogan.  This is a recipe for long term instability.  In this environment, it is inevitable that this polarization will affect TSK.  It will take more than a decade to restructure TSK on professional grounds while at the same time keep it under civilian control.

 This article is based on author’s talk at The Democracy Forum in London on 19 March 2018.  

Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

 Defence Journal, May 2018

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2 Replies to “Eclipse of the Turkish Armed Forces”

  1. The Kemalist secular Turkey tradition is 90% gone. The Turkish Army once the guardians and guarantors of the Kemalist ideals, have been rendered toothless slowly over the last 20 years. Erdogan has played his cards deftly, taking the democratic road favored by the West and European Union into which Turkey’s elite wanted to join for the last 20 years. He has ratcheted up his Islamic card slowly and steadily invoking democracy whenever it suited him without alarming the Generals in early stages. Last years coup by some supposedly Gulen inspired army officers was the pretext in which all army has been purged of Kemalism, Kemalist ideals and Kemalist inclinations. In this he has been helped by western powers who have a distaste for military rule and a taste for free elections . Erdogan has clearly stated democracy is a train which use to get to your destination, nothing more. His purge of the army and Turkish society in the last one year has made Turkey even less a favourite for joining European Union and it is question of time only when the process will be formally ended.
    Meanwhile Erdogan has also reversed decades old Kemalist policy of friendship with Israel, non involvement in Arab-Israeli conflict , non-involvement in Arab’s internal affairs , detachment from Muslim Umma plitics, etc i.e. not only in internal politics , but also in external geopolitical policies, he has given a decidedly Islamist twist – for example when Bangladesh execute Islamist leaders for joining Pakistani massacre in 1971 , Turkey recalled it’s Bangladesh ambassador. He has been very vocal critic of Israeli handling of Palestinians even while suppression of Kurds inside and onside Turkey continues, including bombardment and aerial bombing. While he has mastered Turkey’s internal politics to his advantage, he will find international politics is much more treacherous.

    It is interesting times for Turkey as under Erdogan , it has given up Kemalist social , internal and eternal policies and taking Turkey into uncharted waters . World and the Middle-east of today is a far cry from what it was 100 years back, and any adventures into reviving Ottoman Turkish glories will come a cropper.

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  2. The whole coup and it’s quick unravelling is very bizarre. Any coup maker worth his or her salt would go for the jugular, i.e. cut all the communication links to the Powerholder, cut all the communication links between the power structures like his political parties , supporters, etc. This is the first thing that should be done within minutes of starting the coup; then occupy all the government offices like TV station, different ministries, etc. In this ‘Gulenist’ coup , Erdogan was happily chatting away to the press and media ; his supporters came out in thousands and with a few shots the coup was over. Never could a coup have been bungled so badly.

    Turkish generals have to attend 2 week Executive Course in Coup making hosted by Pakistani Army School for Coup makers before any other adventures

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